Coronavirus Philanthropy Ideas for the Strategic Giver

“I’d be interested in recommendations on civil society responses to coronavirus and markets period. What can I best do to help people in need?”

I received that email last week from one of our Novus Society clients. When emergencies pop up, those of a philanthropic spirit (or who are just generally nice people) try to find ways to be helpful.

The vicious combination of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic and ongoing wild market and business disruptions is creating great uncertainty across all demographics. It also presents many opportunities where philanthropy can help.

Private philanthropy (and private business) are leading the way in developing methods for detection of the novel coronavirus and in finding treatments. The Gates Foundation has contributed more than $100 million toward the effort, and more than a billion in private dollars has been spent globally, according to Chronicles of Philanthropy. Individual sports stars have collectively pledged millions to support workers at sports arenas and venues that have gone dark.

You don’t have to be a billionaire or a celebrity to help, though. If you have charitable capital you are ready to deploy in the face of the virus and financial turbulence, here are four main areas to consider.

Support Your Neighbors

The food bank, free medical clinics, and other direct-aid charities in your city and state can always use support, and doubly so in an emergency. These vary widely from community to community, but here are a few of the types of organizations you might look for:

    • Food banks: With gig work drying up, restaurants and schools closing, and major companies furloughing employees without pay, those living paycheck to paycheck will be in a tight spot – even if they avoid getting sick. In light of virus concerns, many food banks have stopped taking food contributions and even abandoned volunteer labor. They need cash to serve immediate needs.
    • Aid for the elderly: Given how vulnerable older people are to COVID-19, charities that bring food and supplies to the elderly are in desperate need. Programs such as Meals on Wheels exist in many communities. Other programs, such as We Are Family in DC, similarly are focused on looking after older Americans.
    • Local charities in general: Charities you support that may have nothing to do with the coronavirus response or even direct aid may well still be in a tough spot, perhaps by being thrown into telework or because their sources of income dried up. Your continued and perhaps increased contributions to those groups will ensure they can maintain operations and are ready to be back to normal on that day when “normal” returns.
    • Support businesses and employees: While focus primarily on philanthropy, let’s also not forget that being charitable sometimes goes beyond giving to charities. One way to assist in times of crisis is to participate in the local economy as best you are able. Due to the coronavirus, many restaurants in population centers are closed for public seating, but they remain open for take-out. Coffee shops continue to serve. Many web-based apps like Grubhub, Ubereats, or Doordash are waiving delivery fees. Purchasing gift cards to some of your favorite local business for future use can also be a great way to help them through this time. Meal delivery services like HomeChef or BlueApron provide creative alternatives to menu planning and reduce the need to visit the grocery store more often. More importantly, increase the amount you’d normally tip for using such services. It goes a long way.
Support Broadly

Perhaps you want to think beyond your local community, or simply want to take a broader view of giving to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Here are two very broad-based, virus-focused efforts.

    • Center for Disaster Philanthropy is a US based non-profit that works to get money to hard-hit areas in various emergencies, and also does research to understand how such funding can be used most effectively. Their COVID-19 response focuses on the areas with the most significant outbreaks to help increase the capacity for response. They are a fully private supported effort.
    • CDC Foundation Coronavirus Response Fund. This is the non-profit arm of the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC Foundation picks up the slack in funding things that government resources can’t handle or can’t get to in a timely way. I hesitate to recommend this one given its affiliation with a government entity, but it does take less than 4% of its funding from government grants and would seem to be able to leverage the CDC’s local knowledge of where the highest needs truly are.
Support Our Ideas

On a National Review Institute-hosted call on March 17, former White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett was asked how much we could expect the national debt to grow because of the government response to the virus and to the financial downturn. “Oh, quite a lot,” was his discomforting answer.

In times of crisis, too many people turn to government for answers – and too often to the federal government when they should look farther down. We have seen this playout in our history time and time again. Sometimes the call to “do something” may be the right one, but it doesn’t mean our civil liberties need to get usurped.

The state think tanks and national liberty groups must be vigilant in ensuring our principles don’t get lost in the conversation. Federalism matters, and we should help other citizens understand the role of our constitutional system.

There’s also an opportunity here for the Overton Window to shift toward issues we care about. The governor of Massachusetts, for example, overturned (at least temporarily) some occupational licensing rules for health care workers. That’s an important issue for many State Policy Network (SPN) groups right now, and there are other issues that may be able to get more attention in this crisis than they otherwise might.

Or, as Nick Gillespie of Reason put it, “By now it might be more correct to believe there are only libertarians in a pandemic, including officials who are suddenly willing and able to waive all sorts of ostensibly important rules and procedures in the name of helping people out.”

Ask think tanks you care about how they are speaking up for liberty. They could probably use your help to do it.


One other option, particularly if the stock market roller coaster has you skittish – is to wait a few weeks or months to deploy your charitable capital. This is very much an emergent crisis. The problems society will face three months from now may be very different than we currently are witnessing. A slight delay may actually be better suited to your own charitable interests. (Time may also grant you a slight upward nudge in your stocks, letting you give a bit more).

Get Your Money There

One question to ask organizations you want to give to: what is the best way to give right now? Many offices are closed, so some organizations may find it challenging to receive a physical check. Organizations may prefer an ACH or wire gift, or have an alternative address to send to. Be sure that you check with your favorite charities to remind them to have such information available to donors who request it, or remind them to set themselves up for online contributions or ACH transfers.

If you have a donor-advised fund, we can think through those mechanics for you. DAF account holders may also be well positioned to play an important role in the philanthropic response to both the health crisis and the economic crisis. Many DAF accounts have at least some money built up that can be used in times such as these.

We are in a unique time, with a global health pandemic coupled with incredible declines in our economic stability. These are the times when private philanthropy and generous Americans matter most.


  • Peter Lipsett

    Peter Lipsett is vice president at DonorsTrust. He also leads DonorsTrust’s Novus Society, a network of donors under 40 committed to growing their philanthropic know-how. He has a dual degree in political science and theater from Davidson College and finally got a practical credential with an MBA from George Mason University.

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